Short-Term Memory Loss and the Chicago Tribune

(Graphic: I could have sworn I put that archive around here somewhere… Original Credit: Art by Rick Tuma.)

Last week, the Chicago Tribune won 14 Lisagor Awards for outstanding journalism. I know this because I read the story in the virtual pages of the online newspaper. Trouble is, try as I might to find links in the story to the award-winning past reporting, none were to be had. What a wasted opportunity to showcase older content and keep visitors clicking throughout the Trib’s website–not to mention being served ad content.

Any blogger worth their salt will tell you, if you want to play nice with the Google page-ranking algorithm and keep visitors on your site, given them a reason and a way to explore your site. CHICAGO CARLESS isn’t the top Google result out of 885,000 web pages that come up when you search the single word “carless” for nothing, friends. This blog is a tightly woven, interlinked, and ongoing story.

So why isn’t the Chicago Tribune website? It’s a question raised by fellow Twitterer and Playboy.com senior editor @ourmaninchicago that entered me (@chicagocarless) into a healthy debate with him, communications guru @LeahJones, and most critically, Tribune SEO (Search Engine Optimization) Director and rabid bacon fan @brentdpayne. (Trust me, you tweet about bacon and Chicago in the same sentence and see who comes running.)

For some time now, I’ve been of the opinion of media-watcher blog, Newspaper Death Watch: that is, journalistic hubris and an outdated refusal to change with the times have rendered the print-news industry immune to learning lessons from the people on the web who know full well how to build a community of visitors.

I said so during the debut of Huffington Post Chicago last August. I repeated my contention in an April piece about the failure of a local investigative journal (whom I dubbed the Anonymous Lectern) to thrive on the web. And I further beat the horse last week in my look at print’s future on the web.

As it turns out, journalistic hubris isn’t exactly the problem at the Tribune. And yet again, it is. After our group discussion, Brent Payne discussed the problem of expiring content in a detailed and informative post on his personal blog.

According to Payne, most content except is wiped from the Trib’s servers every 60 days for a variety of reasons including:

  • The immense server load from thousands of daily articles across all Tribune newspapers;
  • Contracts with third parties that (assumedly) require deletion of content after a set time; and
  • Until very recently, a lack of recognizing the SEO value and importance of maintaining full access to legacy content.

The Trib’s coming-to-Jesus realization regarding that last point is, of course, why they brought Payne on board in the first place. Considering his prolific knowledge of all things SEO (browse his Twitter timeline), it’s a good thing they did.

According to his blog, among other things, he’s in the process of creating stand-alone archive websites for all Trib papers. However, one sentence stood out as soon as I read it:

“By the end of the year I will have all of the newspaper sites with some sort of archive site.”

As I told the Anonymous Lectern earlier this month, what on earth makes the Tribune think they have that kind of time left? It’s not Payne’s fault. He’s hamstrung by the financial resources and staffing provided to him by his Tribune overlords.

And that brings me right back around to where I started. If the Trib is going to survive online, it needs to give people a reason to stick around and browse. Not eight months from now. Not tomorrow. But now. Right now. Yesterday if at all possible.

Whoever is controlling the SEO purse strings at the Tribune is probably going out of their way to refuse to understand that survival for the paper–any paper–is and only is going to be achieved through immediate and wholesale adherence to the expectations and standards that exist online. Any newspaper that thinks it can make SEO a long-term goal and not (to use a Buddhist term) a “burning turban” question of absolutely immediate importance is committing suicide. I don’t know how much finer a point I can put on that.

So we have SEO demi-god Brent Payne swimming upstream to try to kick-start an eight-month-long project that even by December will only just have begun. And we have a Tribune deathwatch clock ticking louder and louder.

During last week’s round of the Trib’s seemingly never-ending layoffs, Trib editor Gerould Kern said:

“With today’s actions, we are making the leap to a newsroom structure that we believe is sustainable barring further significant declines in advertising revenue.”

Right. Sustainable barring further significant declines in advertising revenue. Meanwhile, anyone else notice among those who got the axe last week was the Trib’s recession reporter? Oh, irony. I have three comments for Mr. Kern.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

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